In a new study, researchers found that college students valued boosts to their self-esteem more than any other pleasant activity they were asked about, including sex, favorite foods, drinking alcohol, seeing a best friend or receiving a paycheck.
"It is somewhat surprising how this desire to feel worthy and valuable trumps almost any other pleasant activity you can imagine," said lead author Brad Bushman of the Ohio State University.
Bushman conducted the research with Scott Moeller of Brookhaven National Laboratory and Jennifer Crocker of the Ohio State.
In two separate studies, the researchers asked college students how much they wanted and liked various pleasant activities, such as their favorite food or seeing a best friend. They were asked to rate how much they wanted and liked each activity on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely).
One of the items they were asked about was self-esteem building experience, such as receiving a good grade or receiving a compliment.
"We found that self-esteem trumped all other rewards in the minds of these college students," said Bushman.
Those students who indicated they highly valued self-esteem also showed it in the laboratory.
In one study, the participants took a test, which purportedly measured their intellectual ability. Afterwards, the students were told if they waited another ten minutes, they could have their test re-scored using a new scoring algorithm that usually yields higher test results.
Students who highly valued self-esteem were more likely to stay to get the new scores.
"They were willing to spend their own precious time just to get a small boost in their self-esteem," said Bushman.
Meanwhile, the results have suggested many young people may be a little too focused on pumping up their self-esteem.
"It wouldn't be correct to say that the study participants were addicted to self-esteem. But they were closer to being addicted to self-esteem than they were to being addicted to any other activity we studied," said Bushman.
In this study, participants liked all the pleasant activities more than they wanted them, which is healthy, said Bushman. But the difference between liking and wanting was smallest when it came to self-esteem.
"It wouldn't be correct to say that the study participants were addicted to self-esteem. But they were closer to being addicted to self-esteem than they were to being addicted to any other activity we studied, added Bushman.
The study was published in the Journal of Personality.